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Songs In The Key Of Life

Songs In The Key Of Life

The lyrical pianist Fred Hersch’s jazz-theater piece ‘My Coma Dreams’ has an unlikely presenter: the narrative medicine program at Columbia.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

The world is made of stories.

Well, perhaps not, but it is through stories that we understand the world, particularly in times of great stress and danger.

That is why “My Coma Dreams,” a new jazz-theater piece by the fine pianist-composer Fred Hersch, is such an astonishingly beautiful and emotionally provoking experience. The piece, which combines Hersch’s piano with a rhythm section, a small chamber ensemble including a string quartet, a singer-actor and elaborate visuals, has its New York City premiere on March 2.

“I’m an Americanized Reform Jew from Cincinnati,” the 57-year-old musician says, speaking from the road. “I was not bar mitzvahed, but we did the confirmation ceremony. You know, it’s Cincinnati, sort of the birthplace of Reform Judaism, so…”

Today, he adds, “I’m not an observant Jew but I certainly relate to it culturally on many levels. There are many things that I respect and [that] are really important.”

More salient for Hersch, undoubtedly, is his very public status as a gay jazz musician who has AIDS.

“I’ve been an activist for many years as a gay jazz musician and a musician with HIV, going back 25 years,” he says.

It was the latter designation that led to “My Coma Dreams.” In the summer of 2008, Hersch was hit by a mysterious crisis: a massive but unknown infection, pneumonia and the gradual shutdown of his body’s functions. To save his life, the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital put him into a medically induced coma while they searched for answers. He would be in that state for two months. Afterwards he would have to undergo extensive physical and occupational therapy. He would have to re-learn such basic things as how to swallow, speak and walk. Piano would come later.

The odd thing about the coma was that Hersch, who says he never remembers his dreams, retained strong and detailed memories of eight dreams that he had during his two comatose months. That situation presented him with “a unique opportunity to take a terrible situation and turn it into something artistic that might touch people.” He teamed with a longtime friend and colleague Herschel Garfein, himself a composer, lyricist and librettist. The result was a piece that is surely unique in the annals of jazz.

“I didn’t want this to be just a collection of songs,” says Hersch, a lyrically minded pianist whose touch and melodic lines bring to mind the great Bill Evans. “I call it jazz-theater because of the interplay of the images, words and music. There are stretches of acting with little or no music, stretches of jazz improvisation. About a quarter of the music is improvised, but a lot of the musical language is not jazz.”

Some of the most powerful moments of the piece have echoes of William Finn, Ned Rorem and Alec Wilder. Singer-actor Michael Winther stands — literally — at the center of the piece, alternately playing Hersch and his partner Scott Morgan, in a performance that is a tour de force in the best sense of the phrase.

The curious thing about “My Coma Dreams,” though, isn’t so much the piece itself. It’s unusual and it is highly accomplished, but not without artistic precedent. The element that might puzzle Hersch’s ardent following is the event’s presenter, the Program in Narrative Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

“This project is exactly at the center of jazz and health,” Dr. Rita Charon says enthusiastically.

Charon is a remarkable synthesis herself, an internist who has been teaching at the medical school for over 20 years, a Ph.D. in literature with a specialty in Henry James, and the founder and executive director of the program in narrative medicine, the first of its kind in the world.

Narrative medicine is at the frontier of patient-centered health care; it is a discipline that calls on doctors, nurses, social workers and other caregivers to listen to and understand the stories of their patients, to see illness in a larger context. It also asks them to draw upon wellsprings of imagination and creativity that might otherwise be neglected.

“The human body is so mysterious still that if we treat it as a puzzle to solve or an algorithm to run, we know we’re simply missing big parts of the mystery,” Charon says. “I’ve treated many people in comas. I’ve become very attuned to the idea that what they go through has to be transparent to those of us who take care of them. Fred can tell us something about what happened in the deepest part of the coma. His piece can provide us with an avenue towards an otherwise inexpressible knowledge.”

On a practical level, she adds, such artistic endeavors “expand our minds.”

“Coma is not an inert state,” Charon says. “The creativity, the artistic talent is medically salient. And for the doctor [creativity] is a required skill. The doctor is not worth much if he or she doesn’t have access to imagination and creativity.”

Finally, she notes, “The patients are writing, too. There are dividends for what the doctor is able to learn but the bigger dividend is for a healthcare fortified by these creative sources of knowledge, which means that the nurse, doctor or social worker knows more, and that is going to make the care better. The only reason to do this is to improve the health care.”

Hersch, of course, has slightly different reasons. He’s a musician. This is what he does. He’s an activist, compelled to share his experiences. He lived this with Scott, with all the terrors and a surprising amount of humor.

“[A piece] this intimate is a first for me,” he says. “But it didn’t really feel odd to share my experiences with the public. I felt I had a unique opportunity to take a terrible situation and turn it into something artistic that might touch people.”

But he admits to another reason, one that he draws from an unexpected source, his Jewish upbringing.

“My understanding of the Jewish religion is that you live on in the memory of people who knew you, and that’s what’s important. If you were a schmuck, that’s how you get remembered, and if you were mensch that’s how you get remembered. It’s not fire and brimstone and everlasting damnation, and I like that. Being good in this moment is the only insurance we have that we may leave behind something of ourselves that’s positive. That’s why I created a piece like this. I want to be remembered more as a mensch than a schmuck.”

“My Coma Dreams,” composed by Fred Hersch, conceived, written and directed by Herschel Garfein, will have its New York City premiere on Saturday, March 2 at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University (116th Street and Broadway). The piece, which is presented by the Program in Narrative Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, will be performed at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. For information, call (212) 854-7799 or go to For information on the piece itself, go to

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